Appalachia Appalachia Through My Eyes

Appalachia Through My Eyes – Helping Skim the Syrup

My life in appalachia helping skim the syrup

The girls had the opportunity to help skim as sorghum syrup was being made at the Burnette Farm in Haywood County NC. I’ve seen the process of making syrup at the festival over in Blarisville GA, but seeing a family make sorghum syrup as they do every year was a wonderful experience.

David Burnette, who owns the farm, explained the process from the planting of the sorghum in early May all the way to the making of the syrup at the end of the growing season. He discussed the various names folks call the syrup as well. He often calls it molasses, even though the jars he and and his wife sell say sorghum syrup. Mr. Burnette admitted it could get confusing, since true molasses is made from sugar cane which is a totally different plant than sorghum. But as he said, it’s hard to change what you grew up calling it.

Pap simply called it syrup. When I was growing up there was always a jar of local honey on the table and a jar of syrup. Pap and I liked the stronger taste of the sorghum syrup and Granny and the boys liked the milder taste of honey.

The Burnette family opens up their farm for several weekends during sorghum syrup making season. Anyone can drop by eat a big bait of food from the potluck table, learn about the process of making sorghum syrup, and even get to listen to some mighty fine pickin and grinnin while waiting for the syrup to boil down.

Are you a fan of sorghum syrup? What do you call it?


Appalachia Through My Eyes – A series of photographs from my life in Southern Appalachia.

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  • Reply
    Lynn Briggs
    September 9, 2017 at 7:50 am

    My Grandma Mason, born in Haywood Co. NC, called it “Sogum” Syrup. I call it delicious!

  • Reply
    September 14, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    Tipper, I didn’t know there was a difference. Raising cane was my family’s chief source of income in the 50s and 60s. We always called it sorghum molasses. I have wonderful memories of that time, from the hoeing in the spring to the harvesting of the cane stalks, the grinding at the horse-drawn mill and the cooking process in the fall. The pressed stalks were thrown onto a pile that grew tall and my cousin and I played on the “pummie” pile along with wasps and bees. I have written about this on my blog a few years back.

  • Reply
    September 14, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Carl-thank you for the comment! Sorghum is a different plant than sugar cane-you can read more about the differences by doing a quick google search. Sorghum grows similar to corn and makes sorghum syrup. Sugar cane makes molasses. But lots of folks call sorghum syrup molasses-so thats where the confusion comes in : ) Have a great day!

  • Reply
    Carl Mullin
    September 14, 2016 at 8:28 am

    All you folks are calling it one thing or the other, but it’s molasses, just tell me how one is made and the other is made and what from? I have been making it for over 60 years and still do it at BIP.

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    September 14, 2016 at 2:01 am

    ive never tasted sorghum, I am sure its delicious..isnt it wonderful our Heavenly Father has provided for us..these simple plants,,,and to make syrup……we are truly blessed…bet it was fun for the girls to see firsthand what goes into making the syrup.
    much love to you all

  • Reply
    September 14, 2016 at 12:59 am

    Jim-thank you for the comment! I didn’t notice any yellow jackets but I’m sure they were there somewhere : ) The skimmings went in a big black bucket that looked pretty yucky so I don’t think anyone was partaking of that LOL! Mr. Burnett used a tractor operated press to crush the cane. 

  • Reply
    Mel H.
    September 13, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Syrup??! Ye mean “surp” dontchee….?

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Well, Blow me down, I just learned something, I thought some called it one thing and others called it the other.. I do remember the different taste, I just thought that took place in the way it was cooked.. We just ate it with biscuits, didn’t worry what was on the label..

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    September 13, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    I believe I’ve only had it once, and it tasted rather metallic to me for some reason. Oddly enough, though I’ve lived down south for over 40 years and only learned last year while watching a PBS program that it came from a plant. I’d always thought it was an offset of sugar cane production, but now I know that’s molasses, not sorghum. And since I saw the PBS program, I’ve now noticed it growing in several fields around the area where I’ve never even noticed it before.
    Guess it’s true after all, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. LOL
    Prayers everyone has a great week, and a safe one too.
    Love to all.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    September 13, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    I’ve never made molasses but used to go with Grandfather when they got first cane in to crush. They had two mules who pulled the crusher, round and round and I remember feeling so very sorry for their seemingly sad, circling life. This was down at Bethel, NC! They took sugarcane plants, boiled, strained , skimmed and reboiling. When the FIRST ‘amber’ syrup came out of the vat, that was MY favorite. At what stage this happened, or how long it took, I don’t remember.* If the molasses are boiled a third (or forth?) time, the results are blackstrap molasses, a dark, bittersweet syrup which I don’t like but deer love. I often buy some black-strap and pour circles onto cracked corn to feed starving deer in winter. We stirred our molasses into a slab of Granny home-made churned butter and dipped spoonfuls on hot biscuits right out of cook-stove.. What a wonder flavor and aroma AND remembrance. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it all..
    *(this is way I remember the process)
    I love honey also, and am hoarding Tupelo honey $ as it never turns to sugar,…. just in case!!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 13, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Glen Jefferson DeHart – born 16 Aug 1910, died 24 Oct 1924, son of C C DeHart and Catherine Simmonds, age 14 yrs. 2 months “head crushed with Cain Mill Sweep died Suddent” [sic]
    My mother was born in January of 1924 but apparently gleaned her knowledge of this tragedy from the memories of older folks. When Daddy “raised cane”, us youngins were all part of the process. Planting, hoeing, weeding, stripping, cutting and hauling. Uncle Everett Wikle had a cane mill set up just passed where Licklog Road forks off of Needmore Road. The mill was on the right side of the road and the evaporator on the left. That’s where Daddy had to take the cane. Everett would extract the juice and cook the syrup down for half.
    Come syrup making day and Mommy wouldn’t go and didn’t want us anywhere near. That’s when I first heard of this incident. Mommy finally conceded to our watching but with our promises to stay on the left side of the road. She also made promises of her own concerning our ability to sit foreverafter if we were caught cheating. Being always quick witted (smart aclecky) I thought of the fact that the mill was on the left side of the road if you were coming from the other direction but the look in Mommy’s eyes convinced me I’d better save that one for later.
    From then until now, when someone mentions making sorghum syrup or lasses, I think about this event. Mommy never mentioned a name and I don’t know for sure that she even knew, but the terror in her face when she spoke of it has stuck in my head. It was only recently (relatively speaking) that, while doing family tree research, that I found his death certificate. Glen Jefferson DeHart was my 3rd cousin 1x removed.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    September 13, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    and Jim and Jackie…
    Yep, when there weren’t biscuits on the table, dessert was cornbread drenched in sorghum! In fact we liked cornbread and sorghum even without butter smeared across it!
    Jim I think it was white (clear) Kayro syrup that my Dad called Dixie Dew! He would eat it as a last resort, if he didn’t have homemade sorghum for his, biscuit, cornbread and/or yes, “light bread”! HA
    Jackie, how could you forget the ads for my RC Cola and a Moon Pie!
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    I guess Daddy knew about sorghum, molasses, and honey cause we always had that stuff for breakfast, if we wanted it. None had any labels tho. I recon I’ve eaten anything that can be put on a biscuit, but I’m not a big fan of any of the sweet stuff.
    Even my youngest daughter and all her girls take after me, they just don’t like sweet stuff. But candy is a different story, and I love bread. Matter of fact I have to have a biscuit with a candy bar…Ken
    PS: I bet Ethelene could tell some really good syrup stories.

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    I remember “helping” make molasses at my Grandpa’s every year. We grandkids would strip the cane. He did it the old fashioned way with a mule and a turnstile. Mostly I remember the sticky itchy feeling that lasted until we had a hot bath. I never care for molasses at all but it was on the table with the biscuits at every meal.

  • Reply
    William Roy Pipes
    September 13, 2016 at 10:47 am

    I helped make molasses two days once when I was about 16. My pay was a gallon of molasses. I was disappointed as I needed money to take my girlfriend to the movies. I took the molasses home and told my parents, “no one eats a bite until I get $2.00.” My father laughed, but gave me $2.00.

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 10:20 am

    I grew up with molasses made by a neighbor. His son took over the operation when he died. Now a grandson continues the trade. I tried some of the grandson’s product and didn’t like it. I don’t know if he burned it or my taste buds have changed or both.
    To Don: I remember Dixie Dew. I also remember when Pepsi came out with a 12 oz bottle. Their jingle on the radio was, ” Pepsi Cola hits the spot. Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot. Twice as much for a nickel too. Pepsi Cola’s the drink for you.” This was real competition for Coca Cola in the 6 oz bottles. Then came Double Cola at 16 ounces.

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    September 13, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Some called it sargum.
    As kids we stripped the blades of the cane and later we were allowed to take a piece of cane and dip right out of the pan.Lick it off and redip.I don’t believe this would be allowed today.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 13, 2016 at 9:20 am

    As I was growing up we always called it molasses even though it was made from sorghum cane.I’m glad to see David still cooking in a Boiler instead of an Evaporator which many folks use today. The Evaporator is basically a Boiler with sections built into it, the juice runs in one end and the dividers have holes on alternating ends which allows the juice to pass from one section to the next. This method is faster and produces more product but the syrup is usually rushed through and isn’t cooked down like the Boiler method which uses a large vat which allows the syrup to cook longer imparting a golden brown color if the skimings are kept off and the bottom of the boiler is kept scraped. Evaporator syrup usually has a greenish tint due to the juice not being cooked down and will turn to sugar much quicker than syrup made in a Boiler. One of the “Legends of Needmore” as I call the old tales pertains to two gentlemen who were running their “still” when they got to talking about how they both liked Karo Syrup, consulting the label they discovered it was made with “Corn Syrup”, both of these men were familiar with making “sorghum lasses” so after sampling their “shine” a bit they decided to make some corn syrup. They cut down all their sweet corn, ran it through a sorghum mill and even though it didn’t yield much juice they cooked it down anyway. Instead of winding up with corn syrup they were left with a boiler full of something the consistency of tar and their wives were not happy about the lose of their sweet corn. I understand their original product which they were distilling and sampling turned out much better than their corn molasses. Thinking back to the Blog on Packsaddles I discovered last week that they also like Jalapeno pepper plants; I discovered this by mistake while gathering a few peppers to make Jalapeno Cornbread but not until it had stung me from my knuckles almost to my elbow. Thank goodness my wife administered first ad with meat tenderizer and ammonia and the burning only lasted a couple of hours.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    September 13, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Sometimes molasses is just refined sugar with brown sugar mixed it. Do read the lable. Or stick with sorghum

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 13, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Tipper–Several questions connected with the skimming, all offered in good fun.
    How many yellow jackets were enjoying the process? They are a real nuisance in syrup making.
    Did the girls (or anyone) get into the skimmings? I’m sure that’s not the case but would note that the mess removed from the top becomes alcoholic in pretty rapid fashion and was sometimes prized by n’er-do-wells.
    How was the cane (or more accurately, the sorghum stalks) crushed? I’m guessing he had some kind of press rather than the traditional horse or mule operated contraption.
    I’m personally partial to black strap molasses and enjoy the not-so-subtle hints of iron in the taste, but personal preferences aside when I was a youngster what is without question one of the finest advertising slogans I’ve ever seen was used on a type of syrup (I think it was corn syrup because it was clear) called Dixie Dew. It read: “Gives a biscuit a college education and covers Dixie like the dew.”
    I enjoyed it on many a biscuit and sometimes on cornbread too. I wonder if any of your readers recall Dixie Dew and whether any have memories of eating sweetin’ syrup of any kind on cornbread.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    September 13, 2016 at 8:53 am

    I grew up with the PA Dutch sugar cane molasses so I am partial to that.
    My favorites as a child were peanutbutter and molasses and lassay bread to slop up dippy eggs.
    You bring up memories I have not given any thought to in years.
    I think I will call a friend in PA and have her ship me some.

  • Reply
    September 13, 2016 at 8:51 am

    I’ve never had sorghum but would like to try it someday. I use molasses and honey in drinks with lemon juice (hot in winter, cold in summer) but maple syrup is my very favorite. I’ll soon be visiting my neighbor’s sugarhouse to stock up for winter.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 13, 2016 at 8:41 am

    I guess I’ve always used sorghum and molasses interchangeably without thinking about it. My Dad always liked to have some on hand but he was rather particular. He did not like it strong or scorched and he could taste what was wrong when others could not. We use it in cooking mostly for gingerbread. We just ran out this morning making up two batches of gingerbread for the grandson.
    When I can find it, I like the sorghum made by the Gunter family of Muddy Pond, TN. They are the ones who come to Cades Cove each October. I know there are other folks who make as good or even better perhaps but I just don’t know who they are. And the small batches don’t make it far from where they are made and they go fast.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    September 13, 2016 at 7:40 am

    My Mom believed In eating the Black Strap Molasses from sugar cane due to the vitamin content. She always said it was better for you than the dark sorghum. I always thought it looked and tasted burnt and two thick.
    I love sorghum! Seems a bit early for making sorghum. The folks on the plateau usually start their process in October. Guess the weather this year has every farming chore out of sync.
    It’s fun to watch. But, if I was a mule or horse going round and round pulling the grinding apparatus, I’d bow-up like a donkey! ha
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS I like sorghum bettern’ sugar cane molasses and I always check the label before buying a jar out of the season it was made….wish I had a big ole, slathered in butter, cathead biscuit to pour some sorghum on! ha This post made me crave one of those cool fall morning breakfasts, I can smell the bacon frying….or sausage!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 13, 2016 at 6:02 am

    I didn’t know that sorghum and molasses were two different things made from two different plants. I thought they were two different stages of the cooking of the same plant.
    I’m with Granny and the boys. I like to mild sweetness of honey.

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